There’s been a lot of talk recently about systems thinking. I’d like to explore this approach from my experience of health and environment policies and systems.
I’ll start with our health system. I’m going to generalise and possibly exaggerate here to make a point; and what I say, I do so with the greatest of respect to everyone working in our amazing health care system.
Our current health system is predominantly an illness-fixing service and tends to intervene only when we are already ill. It’s a system that is responding to negative outcomes and is increasingly unsustainable. Instead, there is a need to move towards a system that focuses much more on preventing the negative outcomes in the first place. A wellbeing-promoting system that keeps everyone as well as possible for as long as possible; one that is based on prevention and preventative spend; one that sees health as an investment, rather than a cost.
An excellent example of prevention and one which is close to my heart is promoting physical activity and in particular walking. Human health has 3 dimensions, our physical, mental and social health and we know that being physically active has a huge positive impact on all 3. Furthermore, in the context of Covid-19, we know that being physically active has an immediate and positive impact on our resilience by enhancing our immune system.
Investing much more in promoting physical activity is the type of transformational system change that will deliver more in terms of positive outcomes. It will create healthier, happier and more resilient people and a more sustainable and resilient health system.
I’ve come to the same conclusions when I look at our planet and the rest of the living world. Our relationship with it and our ‘systems approach’ towards its use and exploitation are also increasingly unhealthy and unsustainable.
Climate change, biodiversity loss and air pollution are all symptoms of an unhealthy planet and negative outcomes. Worryingly, our approach to dealing with these negative outcomes is similar to what I’ve described above for our health system; that is to focus on treating the symptoms, rather than tackling root causes.
I’d argue that if we look at many other systems, we’ll find the same general pattern. Systems that are based on short-term fixing of negative outcomes in an increasingly unsustainable manner, rather than long-term planning for positive outcomes which deal with root causes. Inequalities and poverty are good examples.
Anyway, this is all a bit negative and I want to be solution focused here. Are there root causes to these negative outcome based systems? Are they interlinked? Is there one ‘super’ system driving ill health, climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, inequalities? I think there is. It’s our economic system. It’s a system that is based on endless growth, consumerism and exploitation of natural and human resources regardless of the negative consequences; it’s based on short-termism and does not think sufficiently about our legacy for future generations; it disconnects us with each other and the rest of the living world; it fuels inequalities and it’s based on values such as greed, self-interest, and lack of responsibility and accountability.
So therein lies my solution. We must fundamentally change our economic system. We must embrace and embed concepts such as wellbeing economics, doughnut economics, the circular economy and natural capital. A move to systems that are based on values of kindness and respect to each other, our planet and other living creatures; that are based on responsibility and accountability; and make us think about how we can be good ancestors.
It will mean moving away from short-termism with the constant and draining focus of dealing with negative outcomes to systems focused on positive outcomes that proactively promote our and the planet’s long-term health and wellbeing. A move to systems based on treating root causes which are seen more as investments, rather than systems based on treating symptoms where such treatment is seen as increasingly unsustainable costs.
I don’t under-estimate how difficult such system change will be. Our current economic system is so embedded in every aspect of modern human societies. It’s also an uncomfortable truth that those who are reading this blog, like me, are most responsible for creating and sustaining the systems and negative impacts I’ve described and potentially we are the ones that need to change the most.
However, the good news is we are also leaders and so it is in our gift to bring about such transformational change. That’s my challenge to you and to me, we need to be the agents of positive change.
I would love to be a world leader at the moment! Perhaps more so than at any time in human existence, our current leaders have the opportunity, and responsibility, to bring about transformational systems change to literally save the planet and create happier and healthier human societies. What a fantastic legacy that would be to leave!
Written by our Chief Officer Ian Findlay CBE on 1 March 2021. Ian sadly passed away on 5 March 2021. We will honour his legacy by working to make Scotland a happier and healthier place.